Why are there suddenly so many Indians on television?
By Nina Shen Rastogi
In part, it's a simple matter of demographics. Immigration from the subcontinent didn't begin in earnest until the late 1960s. So it's only now that U.S.-born Indians—who make up about half of the current crop of South Asian performers—are starting to gain a critical mass both in front of and behind the camera.
This, too, is at least partially a function of changing demographics. More Indians in the fabric of American life means we're more likely to be a source of inspiration for non-Indian writers, like the two Jewish guys from suburban New Jersey who wrote Harold and Kumar—the title characters are based on their friends.
But according to Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the rise in primetime Asians is also the result of advocacy. Her organization and its partners have been working with the networks to develop diversity initiatives for the past decade, ever since 1999's infamously "whitewashed" primetime season, in which not a single freshman show had a leading minority character.
All that talk of demographics is nice, but let's see what the actual numbers are:
It should be obvious where I'm going with this. Natives have been here for, well, forever, not just 50 years. They outnumber Indian Americans by roughly 2-1. At least a dozen TV shows have featured Indian Americans in supporting roles in recent years. But with a few minor exceptions, none have featured Natives.
Since the US Indian and "Indian" populations are similar, there's no good reason to have a dozen Indian Americans but no American Indians. I'd say it's happening because studio executives know the former group but not the latter. They're prejudiced for the people they're familiar with.
Indeed, executives are so comfortable with Asian Indians that they're casting them as American Indians. Tinsel Korey, for instance. Better a "nice" Asian Indian than an American Indian who may be drunk or violent or a troublemaker, right? Who knows whether a Native actor will show up with a head shot or a tomahawk?
Network TV sends message
All these TV shows are worth mentioning, but the network shows are especially telling. They have bigger audiences because they're universally available. And because they're advertiser-supported, they can't take as many risks. With casting or anything else. They're the best example of what Americans as a whole will accept as mass culture.
And what we're seeing is that Asian Indians are becoming acceptable. Perhaps on the way to becoming another "model minority." Which is odd because blacks are possibly the only minority that has reached parity in Hollywood. Latinos, Asians, and American Indians still are underrepresented.
I don't begrudge Asian Indians their success. I've seen a lot of Bollywood stars who seem more attractive, appealing, and charismatic than most Hollywood stars. I'd build some shows around them if I were an executive.
But I'm sure there are just as many American Indian actors who could carry a movie or TV show. Hollywood just has to give them a chance.
For more on the subject, see Asian Indians Slurred as American Indians and Minorities Aren't Quite American.